As St. Patrick’s Day draws near my thoughts return to the place of my birth, 72 Park Terrace West, in New York City which is in the Inwood neighborhood,, a fabulous place in which to grow up and to bring up children. The residents were hard-working and the streets were clean and safe. Also, it was the well made pre-war apartments with their competitive rents that drew the younger, middle-class tenants from downtown. In 1950 there were 10,000 Jews and 27,000 Irish that lived there . Although the Jews, the Italians and the Irish have departed to the suburbs, now, in a new twist in Inwood’s history, young professionals and artists are discovering this increasingly multi-ethnic neighborhood. Although my family attended local Jewish synagogues, most of our friends were Irish Catholic. To my thinking as a youngster, if you were weren’t Jewish you were Irish and to be sure, our Irish friends never discarded their brogues.
My saintly mother, Rose Benjamin, had a smile for everyone and her jolly jokes made her ever welcome. She was always ready to help out where needed and everyone spoke well of her. As a teenager she had survived the ravages of a ten week bout with pneumonia which had left her with a rheumatic heart. She never spoke of it to me and so I was always curious as to why she would never walk up hills, use a step-ladder or engage in any heavy cleaning around our apartment. So, once weekly we had neighborhood woman help her with the any heavy cleaning tasks. When I was very young, there was Mrs. Devaney who could flip a mattress over with one hand. When she left us to take a full-time job, Mrs. Harrington took over. Since I was now in grade school, I would often spend time in her home while my mother took care of errands and chores. Josephine and James Harrington had a large picture of Jesus in their bedroom and my questions about Christianity were both intriguing and conflicting to my very young Jewish mind. Mrs. Harrington eventually went to work full-time for the phone company.and Mrs. O’Shea began coming to us with her Irish Lamb stew, chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, her deep faith and very strong opinions about Anglo-Irish politics. On her way home from work every evening she would stop at the Good Shepherd Church on Broadway and Isham Street to light a candle. There here were other woman from the neighborhood who came to our home once weekly.
I didn’t realize the seriousness of Mom’s condition until I returned home one school day afternoon to find her unconscious on the living room sofa face down in a pool of vomit. Dr. Horowitz rushed over and explained to me about her condition and that it would probably worsen. The years passed and when I turned nineteen, I was called back home from college to learn that my mother had become bedridden and needed to be cared for around the clock. She was suffering and having a terribly difficult time. It was Thanksgiving of 1964 and my father and I needed help, something to be thankful for.
A remarkable thing happened. Unexpected and unasked for, serendipitous, something that restores one’s faith in the goodness of the human heart. It seems that word about Mrs Benjamin had gotten out and they all came back to help,. Mrs. Devaney, Mrs. Harrington, Mrs. O’Shea and the others who filled my childhood memories. They were older now. and their hair was grayer but their eyes still sparkled and their willing hearts were ready for the task of giving my mother the love and dignity which she had always been given to them.. They made up schedules to see that she was never alone, twenty-four hours a day. They bathed her and dressed her and fixed her hair which was so important to her. They cooked and cleaned and even hand fed her toward the end. My mother, Rose Benjamin, passed away during the second week of March in 1965. To my thinking, it‘s close enough to St. Patrick’s Day to be considered her Yahrzeit.