Oy Vey! Stories of my uncles
One stray memory can summon up many, however convoluted. The month of February does that. As a child I had a slew of Jewish Uncles. Now that’s pretty strange since I’m a gentile. It all started at USC. Back in the bad old times of discrimination, Jewish men weren’t accepted into the usual fraternities. They had their own fraternity.
Enter my mother. From age 15 she had been a professional ballerina, singer and actress. She quit high school after her freshman year to follow her dream. Beside supporting and starring roles in Los Angeles theater, she won her share of beauty contests. When she was 18, in 1929, Mother was a Valencia Orange Show Queen. About that same time she was chosen sweetheart of the Jewish fraternity. Friendships formed that lasted a lifetime. Mother married a musician (of course) and divorced when I was about a year old. For the record, she had chutzpah and essayed several careers. Stay tuned.
My first memory of a Jewish Uncle was one my mother dated when I was just a tot. He managed a country club and golf course for the Jewish community. Remember the Groucho Marx comment, “I wouldn’t belong to a club that would have me as a member,” in response to the restrictions of those days. My dentist and doctor uncles both had offices in the Taft Building at Hollywood and Vine. Doctor J and his wife were close family friends, as well. We rejoiced when they were able to adopt two little girls.
Then there was the attorney who loved my mother and who almost became my stepfather. He genuinely cared about me, too. Uncle H was orthodox. His mother would have been heartbroken if he married a goyeh. They remained close friends, though, for the rest of their lives. He is among my dearest memories of childhood and beyond.
Uncle M initiated my mother’s far east adventures. Because of that he definitely wasn’t a favorite uncle. When I was 6, though, and had my tonsils removed he gave me a diamond wristwatch. I was a Jewish princess yet. Who knew? Uncle M managed a girls’ softball team and contracted to tour the Orient. He talked my mother into going as secretary.
I could barely pronounce the name of the ship, Chichibu Maru. One venue was the Philippines. Mother loved Manila and went back on her own, worked for Carlos Romulo on the Manila Herald and performed on the radio. Somehow, when the First Cavalry liberated Santo Tomas internment camp in the Philippines near the end of WWII, Uncle H, then a major in the army, managed to be right behind them, searching for my mother and stepfather to assure himself of their safety.
Mother had met my new dad in Manila, a fellow American who worked for the Philippine government. They married in 1940. That’s what triggered this memory. Every February since 1945 I recall their liberation and the telegram from Uncle H confirming their well-being.
Another wonderful uncle was a superior court judge in Los Angeles. Uncle B married one of Mother’s best friends, another show business type, Hispanic and a Catholic at that. He was commissioned a major in the army, also. During the Nuremberg trials he found himself in Berlin, charged with replacing Nazi judges with non-Nazis. Uncle B and Uncle H, before they went overseas, took special care to see that my grandparents and I were all right. They visited often. None of us knew who among the POWs were alive or dead for more than two years. One year they each asked what I wanted for Christmas, visiting at different times, of course. Doubling my chances, I told them both, a Shirley Temple doll. I got two! Next Christmas it was roller skates. Three guesses.
Some well-remembered Jewish surnames conjure up visions of good times and faithful friends. A very little girl experienced rides in rumble-seats and speedboats, inclusion at stage performances, movies, lunch and dinner dates. Uncle H once approved my pretzels and chocolate ice cream dessert request at the Ambassador Hotel to my mother’s consternation and embarrassment. I didn’t know it then, but I was spoiled, pampered and deferred to. Give me a kind, loving Jewish Uncle every time. Early on I learned words like yenta and bubelah. I try never to be a yenteh, and smile if someone calls me Bubelah.
Gloria Thiele is a resident of Grass Valley
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