Personal History

Missing My Nana

Or, The Pound Cake Madeleine

Me, my mother, and Nana — 1978. Photo by Gus Eden.

In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, he talks about how the combination of a madeleine and a cup of tea unexpectedly brought memories from his childhood rushing back. In the years since Proust wrote about his madeleine, the idea of a smell or taste causing the reappearance of a long-forgotten emotional event has become known as the Proust effect.

Today, I was having my breakfast coffee. Nothing unusual about that, but my fiancee had gotten a random craving for chocolate pound cake, and although I’m not much of a poundcake guy generally, I decided to have a piece. Immediately I was seven again, sitting at Nana’s dining room table.

So I thought I’d use this forum to tell you a bit about her. She got the name Nana because I was hungry. I wanted a banana which was to the left of and behind her, and kept repeating “ ‘nana.., ‘nana…, ‘nana…” Apparently, my pointing skills were not up to par, and she believed I was pointing at her. From that day onward, she was Nana.

Nana was born in 1917 and grew up in the Depression, and due to that, she was extremely frugal. However, this frugality didn’t stop her from enjoying herself, as I explain later. I know that she had a job for years working at a fabric or carpet store, but by the time I knew her she was retired, and her employment history was never a subject that came up.

She got married in 1937, at age 20, after being engaged for four years to this guy:

Nana and Grandpa 1935 — Photographer unknown
Nana in her wedding dress — 1937 — photographer unknown

The reason they waited four years to get married was that my grandfather was in dental school. In 1942, after 5 years of marriage, they had my mom:

My mother as a baby with Nana

In 1944, when my mom was 2, my grandfather decided that American soldiers needed better dental care, and so he joined the Dental Corps and was sent to Germany.

My grandfather, Major Bernard Block, Dental Corps, somewhere in Germany 1944/1945

Although my grandfather did end up taking care of some American soldiers (including my great-uncle, which is its own story) he spent most of his time liberating concentration camps, including Buchenwald and Ohrdruf. Because my grandfather was at war my Nana had to work, which meant that my mom was shipped off to relatives in North Carolina, and spent two years living on the base at Fort Bragg. This is just before my grandfather shipped out.

My mom and grandfather at Fort Bragg

My grandfather fell ill while overseas and died in 1950. However, the years between 1945–1950 were crucial for my family. Because my grandfather fell ill while serving, he was given a pension, and with part of that pension bought the first TV in the neighborhood, which meant that everyone came to the Blocks’ to watch Jack Benny, Sid Ceasar, and The Howdy Doody Show. Because my grandfather fell ill, they were exempted from gas rationing, and since fresh air was thought to be good for the constitution, this meant lots of trips to Jones Beach with family and friends all piled in on top of each other.

Of course, this meant that Nana’s work, plus whatever pension my grandfather got from the Dental Corps, had to cover the family’s needs. After my grandfather died, my mother was a “latchkey kid” before such things were part of the culture. However, in the ’50s New York was safe for teens to ride the subway without worry, so it was less of a problem than it would be now.

Nana got bored with apartments very quickly, and, as new buildings were going up all the time, she would just up and move once the lease was up. Sometimes, if the building had a few vacant apartments, she and a friend would move to a new building together. Nana’s niece worked for the New York City School Department and was able to make sure my mom could go to the same school no matter where they lived. Moving meant the Bronx and Brooklyn. Queens and Staten Island were not options, and Nana wasn’t “fancy enough” (her words) to ever live in Manhattan. Manhattan was “the city”, and you went there for the day once in a while. It was a treat, not a housing option.

Maybe it was the fact that she grew up during the Depression, but Nana was very clear about the fact that she was plain, not fancy. She read the NY Daily News every day, but would never read the Times because that was for “fancy people.” She liked to go to Chinese restaurants as a treat, but would only order beef and peppers. She didn’t listen to any of that newfangled rock and roll, because she had William B. Williams and His Make-Believe Ballroom on WNEW-AM. She only shopped at Waldbaum’s, because that was the store for regular people, though occasionally she would go to the Fort Hamilton PX to get something on sale. By the time I was alive, she had settled into an apartment in Flatbush, on Ocean Avenue. It wasn’t her favorite apartment, she once told me, but by then she was tired of moving.

From about age 6–14, I would go stay with her and her boyfriend, “Grandpa Gus,” for a week in the summer and another in the winter. She and I would go on adventures. My favorite was when I was about 12 and we went to Macy’s Cellar, at the Herald Square Macy’s, in “the city.” The first rule of going to the city was that you had to get dressed up to go to the city, even if you were just taking the subway and then walking around. At the time we went, Macy’s Cellar was a full food hall that rivaled Harrod’s. While we were walking around, I saw Nana taking in the scene. Suddenly, she pulled me over to a bench and said “Just follow me.”

It was caper time. So first we went to the fishmonger, and Nana got a teeny bit of lox, but it wasn’t the lox she was after. Back in the old days, there was something called lake sturgeon. It came from Minnesota, and although you can still get sturgeon, I believe those are Russian ocean sturgeon, and they just don’t taste the same. As we prepared to leave with our lox, Nana, as if she hadn’t seen it before, said “Oh! You have sturgeon! She leaned in close to the guy slicing the fish and said, “My grandson is here from the suburbs of Philadelphia and he’s never had sturgeon. You think I could have a few pieces? Deli guy: “For your grandson? Sure!” Stop two: The dairyman. So Nana ordered some American cheese, sliced (again, not fancy), and pulled the same routine, only this time with something called tub butter. I never understood the appeal of tub butter, but she loved it. Tub butter acquired. Step three: Bread. We get three plain bagels. Nana’s not after bagels, though. She has spied challah but in roll form. Now, you have to picture my Nana — a very sweet, very thin, somewhat birdlike woman. She turns on the charm, and as I watch her pointing at me I hear the bread guy say: “For your grandson? Of course, just take a couple!” Now, at the Herald Square Macy’s, at that time, the escalators were long and wide, which means there was quite a bit of space under them. Nana has already clocked the one escalator with the bench under it, and off we head. We are sitting on the bench, and Nana says to me, “ Be entertaining.” Now, I’m A) adorable, and B) A total ham. So I start singing or dancing (I really don’t remember anymore) and Nana reaches into her bag, pulls out a plastic knife and two paper plates, cuts the roll in half horizontally (you try that with a plastic knife) spreads the tub butter on the roll, carefully places the sturgeon on top, and she and I eat sturgeon sandwiches under the escalator at the Herald Square Macy’s.

Sometime in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Nana had met a man named Gus Eden. Gus loved her very much and treated her like a queen. However, his existence in our family was highly problematic, as he was flat-out unapologetically racist. From Savannah Georgia, his complaint, as far as I could figure, was that he and his parents were sharecroppers picking cotton, (probably in the 1910’s) and they lost those jobs to a black family who would pick cotton for less money.

All I knew when I was young was that people I loved spent time yelling at each other for reasons I couldn’t understand. My family is a proudly liberal Jewish family, and Gus was neither of these things. This wasn’t helped any by the fact that as a kid with Cerebral Palsy who had trouble walking, I saw someone on TV all the time who was in a wheelchair, and so I decided I liked him. It was 1973. I was six. His name? George Wallace. Gus thought this was great. My parents, not so much. I had no idea what his politics were, just that I was better at walking than he was and he was famous.

Nana and Grandpa Gus Desert Inn Golf Course, Las Vegas NV, 1982. Photographer unknown.

In addition to his racism, Gus was a golfer, gambler, and gargler, in no particular order. He did love me, though. He and Nana would go on vacation to Las Vegas during the winter, and they liked it so much that when Gus turned 65 in 1982, they packed up their stuff and drove out there to live. Nana explained that it never got cold and they could walk around safely at any hour of the night. She spent the rest of her life (she died in 1990 at age 77) happily playing penny slots, going to discount buffets, and watching tapings of the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin shows.

Before she moved away, though, I got to witness a ritual I’m not sure exists anymore: The coffee klatch. Every night, at 7:00, the same 6 (sometimes 7) women, played mah-jongg, drank coffee, (well, Sanka — only one of them drank actual coffee, and she was mocked for being the fancy one) and ate sweets (as they would say) which were mainly rugelach, hamentashen in season, occasionally pignoli cookies (only the fancy lady brought those — and more scorn was poured upon her — but all in good fun) and Nana’s favorite, chocolate babka.

Nana survived almost entirely on desserts and Sanka- she wasn't one for actual food. She was consistent, though, as she hated to cook and was therefore awful at it. If I had been her making dinner for myself I wouldn’t have wanted to eat it either — though we suffered through various takes on dry pot roast and overcooked frozen vegetables. Somehow, and it took me years to discover how, she made the best scrambled eggs ever. Her everpresent Sanka meant there was always non-dairy creamer around, and it makes eggs light and fluffy. Who knew?

Nana hated self-importance, braggarts, and cruel people, and tried to be kind to everyone she met. One of her quirks was that she did not want to be buried in the ground as she hated bugs, so she is buried in a niche wall in a cemetery on the edge of Las Vegas. If you drive by have some chocolate in honor of Dorothy Joan Block, my nana. I’ll close with her favorite song.

Writer, thinker, diaresis fanboy. Topics: Politics, sports, and disability rights. Email: scrdchao@gmail.com, or caffeinate them @ https://ko-fi.com/sacredchaos

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