Pearls from the Past

I lost my chance with my dad—there are so many little things I wished I asked him before he passed away, so I was determined not to make the same mistake with my mother. She is 94-years-old and I visit her every Sunday. We sit and talk as I help her with her bills. Mom has difficulty remembering things I told her a few hours ago, but her recollection of events dating back to the thirties and forties is truly remarkable. I thought I would write today about some stories she shared with me on a hot and sweltering Sunday afternoon in August.

“Mom, I don’t know how you live in this house with no air conditioning. It is 95 degrees outside today! I could never do it.” She laughed and said, “But you did do it for the first fifteen years of your life.” I wiped the perspiration from my neck and reflected for a moment. She was right—it seems like I blocked those years in my memory and only recall my high school days when my brother and I shared a small window air conditioning unit. She smirked as she asked, “Who’s got the bad memory now?” Mom dug into her chair and I did the same. A story was coming—the bills could wait.

“Back in the thirties, no one had air conditioning. That’s one of the reasons we saw so many movies in the summer. A few people got some relief at work, but most had to cope. Some folks pulled mattresses out onto the fire escape. Others slept on the beach or in the parks. It was tough, but we managed. This is nothing compared to back then.”

I never argue the point about things being tougher years ago, because generally it’s true. I got her a glass of water and she was ready to continue when I returned, “We rode the Broadway Trolley to catch a breeze, but the subways were unbearable. It was hot enough on the platform, but when the train pulled up and everyone packed into those unventilated cars, there was no escaping the heat. The men wore these linen suits that wrinkled with every movement and sported straw hats. Oh my God…those hats dug into their heads. Funniest damn thing, seeing all of the wrinkled men with lines on their foreheads.” She chuckled as she looked up and to the right.

It was my turn to contribute to the conversation, so I took out my phone and started to Google. Air conditioning was invented in 1902, movie theaters had systems in the 30s, and Packard automobiles started offering it as an option in 1939. The subways weren’t fully air conditioned until 1993. I imagined traveling each day on the subway and working in an office with a big fan. I suggested that it must have been terrible.   My mother agreed, “It was bad, but we did it. You do what you have to do. I’ve got a lot of memories with family trying to cool off in the summer. Actually,” she smiled, “It wasn’t all bad.”  Her grin broadened as I can only assume she recalled a great day in the park or a fun time on the fire escape.

I continued Googling and read about the roughly one hundred people who died on July 4,1872 from heat exhaustion and the unusual decree in the summer of 1923 by the mayor of New York, which officially opened all public parks overnight for sleeping. Another article mentioned the floating baths that the city set up in boats on the rivers. I included a scene on one of these special ships in my second book, “A Wave From Mama.”

The bills were almost done and I asked my mom if she wanted to escape the heat for a bit. She nodded her head. It wasn’t the 1930s, but an air conditioned movie theatre did the trick.   My thoughts turned to next Sunday as my mother thanked me for stopping by. I’m thankful that my parents taught me many of the big things at a young age, but I’m also happy to now have this private time on Sundays—even if it is 95 degrees—to hear about these little pearls from the past. I wonder what she’ll teach me next week!