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From The Vault Of Art Shay: My Mother Mollie

By Art Shay in News on May 9, 2013 6:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. This week, Art tells of how his mother came to America.)

My otherwise wonderful mother, Mollie Shay, had a lot to complain about. "You know me, I never complain," she used to complain. She had arrived at Ellis Island on a Dutch ship at 12 years old with her mother, Baileh Perel Schesten, three bright, energetic young sisters and 4 year-old Moses. They were extraordinarily close, having operated a one-oven baking business out of their small house in the Ukraine. The girls would stay up baking half the night and deliver half the next day — Bagels, bialys, muffins, rye and corn bread.

Sam came to America five years earlier and somehow conspired to impregnate Baileh yet again on the day he left With a here-and-there son, Moses. He would eventually fall prey to the loan sharks who operated in the slum-streets of Manhattan bordering on the upper East River. I still remember my mom hocking her $200 engagement ring to keep Moses alive and out of their clutches. (He was also a lousy crap shooter.)

His very existence, unbeknownst to Sam, would call into question the family's passports. No one except my grandma knew she was importing a little stranger. But for a sympathetic customs man, the entire family was about to be shipped back to Gorodok, a two day's walk through Tevya villages and official border hostility from Poland and Russia. "Moishe" was an unbidden guest-to-be.

Sam, a stubborn religious zealot, was a carpenter by trade who saved up enough for his family's train and boat fare, under what then passed for a hundred bucks. One scrap of ID, transcribed into Dutch, explained that Sam would join the army of carpenters building camps at Camp Upton for WWI troops en route to saving the world for democracy in the trenches of Europe. (Within anecdotal range of Gatsby's and Daisy's green dock light.)

Years later my mother remembered the buxom German boat lady who rousted all the Jewish kids at dawn to see the Statue of Liberty and get some "luft" into their kikey lungs. (The opprobrious "kike" came from the Jewish word for Circle, for the Circles Jews mindlessly drew filling out their papers.)

So four smart little immigrant girls and their brother ended up with grade school educations. My mother somehow learned the hat trimming trade and the rest of her life told stories on her boss, the wonderful Clorette, whose fashionable shop thrived uptown while Scott and Zelda shopped elsewhere at the same time. My mother could do seven minutes on the art of trimming hats alone. When she was 16, my father, a neighbor of 36, fell in love with her. The only way Papa would tolerate a marriage was to believe the lies the couple told him about my father's age. (I think they worked it down to 28.)

It didn't help that my father was an atheist who avoided the nonsense of synagogues and the other orthodoxies of Judaism. I still remember the fury of my grandpa at a four-hour Seder when my father asked, "If there is a God why does he let children get crippled and die of polio, and why doesn't he provide enough food and jobs for the workers?" He was a radical whose friend, at one time (when they both were 25), had been Leon Trotsky (!) and my mother spent years trying to cure him of his left wingism to no avail. She may have been a Republican for all I know. He became expert at hiding the culture he had amassed while working at the family trade — tailoring. One rumor: He had gone to college in Leipzig under a non-Jewish name. I'd prefer the fiction that he went to Mexico with Leon Trotsky and seduced Freda Kahlo as Trotsky did.
Once, they came home from the annual party given by his garment workers union. I asked, "Did you have fun Mom?" My attentive younger brother, Len, stood by to hear the answer.

My mother smiled bitterly. "How could I have fun? Your father doesn't dance, look how short he is, and look at this dress he made for me to wear." Pause. "It was all right."

In one volley she had accused him of being too poor, too short and too old. Herman Shay developed his own bitter smile. We all loved them both. They taught us that life was tough but livable. And other values, like the love of reading, the sacredness of learning, the value of saving. And (from my dad-) there ain't a next world.

The world brightened with WW2's and FDR's help in ending the Depression, and when I was 18, dad and mom had twin sons, Barry and Stuart. They were 10 when my father died and I helped my mom support them. They had both been varsity swimmers in high school and turned down an interview with Indiana Swimming Coach Jimmy Counselman. They apologized to me who had scored them the interview: They explained: "We both wanna be engineers. You swim at Indiana, you're in the tank 7 hours a day." My mom instinctively approved. Barry became a computer expert whose team helped design the communications system of the first Air Force 1. Stuart recently retired as co-president of a Florida aviation company . Last year he scored a 130-yard hole in one.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.