THE WINDOWS WERE open on that sweltering Fourth of July in 1937: the day my father walked out of my life forever.
Mother, my brother, Ralph, and I waited all morning for Father to come home from the shop so we could go to Coney Island. When he finally stumbled through the door in mid-afternoon, he reeked of alcohol and smoke. I was fourteen and while my father was often sad and angry by then, I had never seen him drunk before.
Until the Depression, most of the neighborhood families and stores brought their clothing to Father’s tailor shop for mending and tailoring. Each morning he wheeled his clothing rack from the shop filled with beautifully tailored clothes wrapped in cellophane. The sun and wind playing with the plastic made it sparkle like ripples on a pond. To me, Father, tall and trim, looked like a movie star in his finely tailored suit, polished leather shoes, and wide brimmed hat. By noon, he visited each of clothing stores on Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street and returned with his rack filled with pinned and wax-marked garments. When he didn’t have too many stops to make, he would let me walk with him. Even better, he would sometimes say, “My Lady, your carriage awaits,” and would invite me sit on the bottom shelf of the clothing rack as he wheeled me through the streets.
On the tree-lined Brooklyn side streets, many of the people sitting on their stoops greeted father with “Good morning, Mr. Bower” and “How do you do, Mr. Bower.”
Father returned with “And to you” and “Fine, thank you. Have a nice day.”
Occasionally someone asked, “And how is the lovely Miss Maureen this morning?”
I was painfully shy. Father looked down at me, smiled, and replied for me, “Lovely as always.” He ended by waving his hand or even better, by tipping his hat just slightly.
“Daddy,” I said, “it’s like you are the mayor or something,” but he quickly corrected me.
“Not at all, my Lady. You are my princess and I am your humble servant.”
Stores like the A&P, the bakery, and my favorite, the ice cream parlor, lined both sides of Atlantic Avenue, which we always had to cross quickly. Four lanes of cars sprang forward like racehorses coming out of the gate as soon as the lights turned green. They rushed to pass as many of the streetlights as possible before they turned red again. Meanwhile, women coming out of the A&P wheeled their shopping baskets past the butcher shop and the men smoking out front in their white, bloodstained aprons.
The biggest clothing stores were also on Atlantic Avenue. Father took a few of the plastic wrapped items from his rack into each store and exchanged them for others that were pinned and marked with wax. All of the clothing storeowners looked alike to me. Each of them wore baggy pants, a button down shirt with a collar and a vest. A bar of white marking wax peeked out of the vest pocket and a cloth measuring tape with pins in it hung around their necks. They all spoke with a funny but nice sounding accent.
The smaller clothing stores and my father’s tailor shop were on Fulton Street. The elevated train overhead kept the street constantly shad-owed. Most of the people living in the third and fourth-floor apartments kept their curtains closed because you could see right inside from the train cars. The corner candy store was just across the street from the tailor shop and every evening Ralph and I eagerly waited to see what new delights Father bought for us.
“For my princess,” Father said as he held up my treat like a prized trophy. It didn’t matter what it was. The way he presented it always made me feel special. On weekdays, after school, he and I sometimes walked together to Highland Park. When I was younger, he sat patiently as I played on the swings or monkey bars. As I grew older, I played less and we talked more. We often sat beneath the shade of the tall maple trees at the highest point in the park. From there, we talked for hours and viewed the park and the busy city below. Father said, “It’s so much easier to see things clearly from up here.” In time, that spot became my favorite place to think, to enjoy the view, and to ponder what the future might hold.
On Saturday nights, Father, tall and trim in his finely tailored suit and Mother, slender and beautiful in her long, flowing dress, walked arm-in-arm to the church dances. Life felt like a fairytale; then everything changed.
After the Depression, many of the regular customers did their own mending or simply made do with what they had. Father worked longer hours at the shop but it didn’t help much. He and Mother stopped going to the dances and he stopped bringing home treats for Ralph and me. Then, just when Father’s business started to improve again, the news in Europe only made it worse.
Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis in Germany settled in the garment district in New York and many of the Jewish-owned clothing stores in our neighborhood moved to the city too. The few stores that remained stopped sending their work to Father’s shop. They hired other Jewish immigrants to do their tailoring in-house. Father said they probably dis-trusted us because we were German. One by one he had to let workers go until it was only him left at the shop. Even then there was never enough money to pay all the bills, and the bank threatened to take the business.
Father looked worried and angry all the time and he started to leave some bills unpaid. Each day more “overdue” notices arrived. On the last day of June, when Mother said that she and I were going to visit my aunt, Father stopped her at the door.
“Good, then you’ll be passing the post office,” he said. “Make sure you mail this on your way.” He handed Mother an open envelope. She looked inside before sealing it. “With all the bills piling up, are you sure you want to do this? This could pay for two week’s groceries.”
“I’m sure. Just don’t forget. It has to be postmarked today.”
When Father staggered into the house on that Fourth of July afternoon, Ralph was outside playing with his friends as Mother and I hung the wash out on the line.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he shouted at Mother as he entered. Mother looked toward me and then turned back to him.
“It’s very hot out. The clothes should be dry in an hour.” “You shouldn’t be working on a holiday.”
“I didn’t know when you would be home. We’ll be finished in just a couple minutes.”
“You’ll be finished now!” Father stumbled backwards against the stove as Mother came in from the fire escape landing and took his arm.
“Maybe you should lie down for a while before we go. You look like you need rest. Let me help you into bed.”
He shoved her aside, “I don’t need rest. I can’t rest. Can’t you see that?”
Then he turned, saw me, and stood still for a moment. His lips trembled and a tiny tear trickled down his face. “I’m so sorry, Princess. You shouldn’t see me like this.”
“It’s all right, Daddy. I’m sorry you’re sad.”
He didn’t answer. I reached for his arm but he pushed past me, heading for the door, only pausing a moment to look at Mother, “And you deserve better than this.” Then he walked out the door and staggered up the street toward the tailor shop.
I started after him, yelling, “Don’t go, Daddy. We’re going to the beach together, remember?” but Mother stopped me.
“Your father needs some time to himself,” she said gently.
Father didn’t return that hot, sticky afternoon, that sweltering night, or the next morning. Several neighborhood women comforted my mother as she paced nervously in the hot afternoon sun. When I couldn’t sit still any longer, I walked up to tailor shop but he wasn’t there, so I continued on to Highland Park. There was always a breeze on the top of the hill. I hoped that maybe, from under the shade of our maple trees, I might just see him walking along the streets below. I began to sweat as I climbed the hill but the temperature dropped quickly as I entered the tree line. Sitting against the base of a tree, I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, and felt the cooling breeze against my skin. The sun peeking through the canopy played on my eyelids until I opened my eyes and screamed.
Father’s eyes, bulging and bloodshot, looked down at me. His mouth and lips twisted horribly like some nightmarish movie monster as he hung from a high branch of a maple tree in Highland Park.
There was something worse than finding Father like that. It was more than my mother’s hysteria at the news, or the chaos of the police and newspaper reporters. It was more depressing than the wake and funeral. What haunted me most was that Father had abandoned me. I was his princess. He told me that he loved me more than anything else in the whole world. Then why didn’t he love me enough to stay?
After the funeral, Mother found the note Father had left behind. In it he said he was sorry for what he was going to do, but he didn’t know of any other way out. He also said that at least now, Mother, Ralph, and I could afford to go on living without him. He left instructions for Mother to contact the life insurance company about his policy, but things didn’t turn out the way he planned. Several weeks later, Mother received the letter saying that father’s policy did not cover death by suicide. I recognized the address on the envelope as the same one Father insisted we mail on that last day in June. The insurance company didn’t even return the last payment Father sent just before he died.
Shortly after, the bank took the tailor shop, forcing Mother to take in sewing at home, as my grandmother had done. Mother looked worried all the time. “I’m sorry, but that’s all there is,” she said on many nights as she laid the watery soup and stale bread on the table. Then she quickly turned around so we couldn’t see her wiping away the tears. Mother relied heavily on her faith, however, and made certain that we prayed the rosary each night and attended Mass every Sunday. That’s where she met Benny. He had lost his wife years earlier and treated Mother kindly after Father died. They married the following year and life settled down to a new normal. Benny was a gentle and generous man. Mother appreciated his thoughtfulness, but they never showed the same affection for each other that she and Father had. We continued to attend church services every Sunday. At every Mass for the next three years, I prayed silently that someday I would find someone of my own who would love me always and would never ever leave me.